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March 14, 2008

Fifth annual bonefish census shows research methods reliable; population fairly stable

Fifth annual bonefish census shows research methods reliable; population fairly stable

Results are in from last year's fifth annual Bonefish Population Census in the Florida Keys and the bonefish population has remained fairly steady from 2006, however, the number of volunteers participating in the annual event continues to grow. According to Jerry Ault, Ph.D., University of Miami Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science Professor of Marine Biology and Fisheries, that's exactly the type of fish stock numbers and community involvement he'd like to see.

"As long as the numbers aren't drastically different from year to year, it means that our methods for measuring the bonefish population are working, and that the resource appears to be sustainable," said Ault. "This year's study showed a slight decrease in the numbers of bonefish caught and released during the survey, as well as in the relative density of the bonefish population in the Keys, but this change is relatively stable."

Seventy-two teams joined the effort this year, spread out across 19 zones in four regions (Biscayne, Upper, Middle, and Lower Keys) from Key Biscayne to the Marquesas. Team participation was significantly enhanced by Gary Ellis and guides who fished in the Mercury Cheeca Redbone Tournament out of Islamorada, Fla.  During the survey held in late October 2007, bonefish sightings were recorded and reported directly to Ault's team at the Rosenstiel School. The 2006 census indicated a fishable population over 382,000, while this year's findings point to a very slight decrease in that number estimated at 364,000 bonefish throughout the Florida Keys. The bonefish being calculated are those large enough (i.e. > 14 inches) to be targeted on the flats for catch and release sport fishing.

"What has been exciting about this year's census is that we've had more guides and fisherman involved than ever before," Ault said. "It's becoming even clearer to fishing guides, enthusiasts and environmentalists alike that understanding more about the bonefish population helps, not only the environment and the sport of fishing, but also the state economy in Florida."

"Bonefish bring in roughly $1 billion dollars annually in tourism to the Florida economy, which factored down ends up being $75,000 per fish over its lifetime," Ault added.

Coordinated by Bonefish & Tarpon Unlimited (BTU) and the Bonefish and Tarpon Conservation Research Center at the Rosenstiel School, the census aims to document population trends of one of South Florida's most important sport fish. Professional guides from the Florida Keys Fishing Guides Association, the Lower Keys Fishing Guides Association, and the Key Largo Fishing Guides Association provided the census with boats and manpower.

Bonefish are an important "indicator" species, in that they help scientists to better understand the population density of small organisms in the same community, while also providing clues to the overall health of the ecosystem. Declines in the number of indicator species often give early clues that something is adversely affecting the local environment.